It has been said that there are five Love Languages – ways we express our love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts.
One of the ways we express love for God is by what we give to him. Ourselves, our faith, our time, our obedience and, somewhere in there: our money.
Giving is not meant to be a chore or a burden but a joy and a privilege. Of course we don’t always instinctively feel like that. We are often scared of missing out in some way if we become generous givers.
Two brothers, Kevin and Ryan, aged seven and five, were fighting over the last two pancakes, one being much bigger than the other. Mother decided this was time for a good moral lesson.
So she said: ‘Boys, don’t you think Jesus would let his brother have the first choice?’
Kevin responded quick as a flash: ‘Ryan, you can be Jesus’.
I remember one Sunday morning in Oxford around 50 years ago. I was regularly worshipping at St Aldate’s church. During the service the Rector, Keith de Berry, said he wanted to see all the undergraduates present in the vestry after the service. So we all obediently trooped into the vestry. There he talked to us about giving a tithe, a tenth, of our income to the church. We were fortunate enough in those days to have student grants so we weren’t poor but we weren’t enormously rich either. What I realise now is that Keith wasn’t after our money. This was a large church with a prosperous congregation. Keith explained that because many people tithed their income the church didn’t have any money problems. A tenth of our student grant wasn’t going to revolutionise the church’s finances. But he knew that if we did what he was asking it would revolutionise our lives. I don’t remember now what a tenth of my grant came to, but I did what he asked.
It was one of the most significant steps in my discipleship.
Tithing was an obligation under the law in Old Testament times. It’s not a law for us. And it’s not a tax. It’s a promise. Paul tells the Corinthians:
No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.2 Corinthians 1.20
It’s a promise of God’s blessing on our finances and our material well-being:
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3.10-12).
Test God?! This is meant to shock. The Old Testament law said “you shall not put the Lord God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6.16) and Jesus endorsed this when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his public ministry. So the promise of Malachi is the exception which proves the rule and suggests that somehow this exception is important.
Why does it matter? What is the real significance of tithing? Is it just a way of financing the work of the church? I don’t think so.
Tithing is a way of putting yourself and your finances into the hands and under the protection of God. His economy is not the same as ours. He does things differently. So it always is in his Kingdom. The world says “Get and you will get more”. Jesus says “Give and it will be given to you”.
A friend of mine spent a year in France as part of his Modern Languages degree. While there he got involved with a small Protestant congregation. He got to know a single parent family who clearly didn’t have much money. Somehow he discovered that the mother was in the habit of tithing her income to the church. So he asked her how she could possibly afford to do this. Her response was swift, brief and emphatic: “I can’t afford not to tithe”.
God doesn’t need our money – what he wants is for us to learn to trust him. To grow in faith. Tithing our income is a wonderful way to experience the faithfulness of God in the nitty-gritty of life.
At its deepest level tithing acknowledges that we are stewards or managers not owners. All that we have is on trust from God. He wants us to learn to handle money well. Jesus makes it clear that there is a larger long-term purpose in God’s trusting us with money:
If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?Luke 16.11-12
He is telling us that God’s purpose is one day – in the new creation – to put real resources into our hands to do with as we please. Stuff that we will actually own, resources which will truly be ours. If we have learnt to handle well what is only lent to us, we will be ready to receive what truly belongs to us. We will be totally trustworthy: we will do with those resources all and only what would please God and bless other people.
The journey to that goal starts now.